Saturday, July 12, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 6

Is a handyman born or made? Nature or nurture? Are little boys born with an innate desire to take things apart and put them back together? Is tool wielding, like gun-toting seems to be, enshrined in the male genes?

My engineer father, like his two brothers, Arthur and Roger, one older, one younger, seem destined for engineering from the first glimpses we have of them in the family records—handy, deft, intrigued with toys that test mechanical skills. There was a sister too, Charlotte, who became a bookkeeper at the Chattanooga Public Library.

Nature and nurture are always tightly entwined, perhaps especially so for handymen of my father’s generation. Boys got Erector Sets for Christmas and girls got dolls. It was assumed that boys would go to college and study technical subjects, and girls stay home and learn domestic arts. But was culture responding to innate male and female predispositions, or was “the handyman” a purely cultural construction? In either case, the word “handywoman” wasn’t in the dictionary. Like all questions of nature and nurture, then or now, the threads are devilishly difficult to pick apart. My father’s propensity for engineering, and that of his brothers, could have come from their own father, Arthur Elsworth Raymo, by either corridor.

Arthur Elsworth was a self-made engineer who grew up on a farm in Nankin, Michigan. In 1905, he married Margaret Merrow, the daughter of a tugboat captain on the Great Lakes, and four children followed in quick succession. The earliest census records show my grandfather as a “farmer,” but by the time the second of his children came along he is listed as “bookkeeper.” He had no formal training in engineering, but somehow his innate technical skills were apparent enough to win him a job managing a phosphate mine in Mount Pleasant, Tennessee, a typical small town of rural mid-America to which he brought his young family. Their snug, wood-framed home was not far from the mine, from which surface phosphate was extracted hydraulically. Photographs show the kids playing barefoot in the sluice water with the hustle and bustle of extraction going on in the background.
Chet's father, Chester (third from left) and siblings, Arthur, Charlotte, and Roger—Mount Pleasant, Tennessee, ca. 1915.

By all accounts, Arthur Elsworth was a consummate handyman. He made much of the family’s furniture—chests, dressers, tables and chairs—and play equipment for the children too—merry-go-round, seesaw, swings, climbing bars, doll houses, sleighs, kites and scooters. It would have been hard to grow up in that environment, I suppose, and not pick up some mechanical skills. Especially if you were a boy. Sister Charlotte had a role model too. My grandmother Margaret Merrow Raymo made all of the children’s cloths, from pajamas to Buster Brown suits for the boys and frilly dresses for Charlotte. Whenever she made a dress for Charlotte, she made one just like it for Charlotte’s doll. She was a good cook too, who always came up with special food and decorations for holidays. It would seem from the photographs that have come down to us that she was adept with a camera too, at a time when the Kodak Brownie era of personal photography was just beginning. Meanwhile, Arthur Elsworth proved he was not just a whiz with material things. He was a pretty good self-taught musician too, who entertained the family with violin, harmonica and organ. The family’s most cherished possession was an early Edison Phonograph, with cylindrical wax records and a diamond needle that never needed changing. Records cost 35 cents apiece or three for a dollar. The family bought six recordings each month, patriotic, humorous and musical. The kids learned from the recordings how to recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride. I have a photograph of Chester as a nine-year-old boy, spiffily attired in a homemade outfit, proudly displaying an airplane he has made from a construction kit supplied by his father, a young budding engineer no doubt hoping his mechanical skill will please the paternal critic. Nature or nurture? In that place and that time it was all part of being male.
Chester T. Raymo Sr.—Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1918.

With a father who made chests and chairs for the family home, doll houses and scooters for the kids, and blasted phosphate out of the ground with water, it was perhaps inevitable that the boys would grow up to be engineers, or at the very least to carry on the handyman tradition. But if nurture inculcated mechanical aptitudes, nature had an anti-mechanical surprise in store.

In the summer of 1917, Arthur Elsworth moved his family to Chattanooga, a bustling industrial railroad center on the Tennessee River, just where the river makes an improbable deviation from its south-tending course along the East Tennessee Valley and cuts a deep gash westward through the Cumberland Plateau. He was hired to help build and operate the Southern Ferro Alloys Company, which would manufacture ferrosilicon for use in the production of hydrogen for observation balloons during World War I. My father was seven years old.

Ten years later, Dad was a seventeen-year-old student at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga when his father, a farmer/bookkeeper now turned superintendent at the Southern Ferro Alloys Company, snagged the glove on his right hand under a moving conveyor belt. His body was thrown forcibly against a post and the arm ripped off at the shoulder. He was rushed to the hospital for surgery. A blood transfusion was desperately required, but by the time a suitable donor was found the patient had died, at forty-six years of age. Was my father there at the deathbed when his father died? Did the seventeen-year-old boy rush from school (it was a Friday) with his brothers and sister to join his mother at the hospital? I try to imagine how this traumatic turn of events must have affected my father, a bright, handy high-schooler who lived admiringly in the shadow of his father’s many mechanical gifts. Now a machine had cruelly wrenched his father’s arm and life away. One might think this tragedy would cause the son to foreswear anything to do with machinery. But no, a year later, as a new high school graduate, he gave up the promise of a good job and rapid advancement at the Chattanooga Boiler & Tank Company to go off, at his mother’s insistence, to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to study mechanical engineering.

Arthur Elsworth Raymo’s death came out of the blue. One moment he was a promising young man with a fine job, a loving wife, four bright, healthy children and a world of promise before him. Then—a slip, a patch of cloth caught in a whirring machine, he turned to look, his arm running away with the conveyor belt, his shoulder gushing his life’s blood. The accident occurred at 10:30 in the morning; by late afternoon he was dead. Presumably, throughout those few hours he was in a state of shock. What thoughts flashed through his mind? For whom did he call out? My grandmother was left to see four children into the world, three boys and a girl. All were bright students at Notre Dame Academy. It seems to have been a foregone conclusion that the boys would go on to the University of Tennessee to study engineering, the profession their father excelled at even though he had not had a university education. A poignant letter remains in our possession from my grandmother to a Mr. Walsh, a person of some importance at the Chattanooga Boiler & Tank Company, where my father worked part-time while attending high school. Apparently, Walsh wanted to apprentice my father as an eventual replacement for his own job, and had made his wishes known to my grandmother. College was not in Walsh’s plan. In the letter, written not long after the death of my grandfather, my grandmother insists it was her late husband’s wish that his boys go to college, and she vows to spend whatever money her husband left to see that wish fulfilled.

All three brothers received engineering educations at the University of Tennessee, by taking cooperative courses—three months working, three months in class. Chester and Roger, the youngest boys and only a year or two apart, worked for the Chattanooga Boiler & Tank Company and the American Lava Corporation. They alternated on the job—one would work while the other went to school. In this way they were able to keep the same employment in Chattanooga and living quarters in Knoxville. Roads were bad in those days, and the 120-mile trip between the two cities in the family car took five or six hours. In spite of all the back and forth, my father was elected to the university’s honorary engineering society and served as editor of the Tennessee Engineer. If there was a mechanical gene in the family line, it expressed itself fully in the subsequent careers of the three Raymo boys. 

Meanwhile, Charlotte, the second oldest child, was required by her gender to forgo a college education to support her mother. She was bright, but there is no evidence I know of—and I remember her lovingly and well—that she possessed the boys’ mechanical aptitude. Nature? Nurture? Either way, theirs was the last generation bound so severely by convention. All of my own siblings—including four girls—went to college, and in recent months I have been watching my own scientifically-educated daughter building decks and remodeling her kitchen, expressing “handyman” skills that may or may not have flowed down to her in Arthur Elsworth’s genes.

Chet's grandfather, Arthur Elsworth Raymo, at the phosphate mine—Mount Pleasant, Tennessee, ca. 1914.